As promised, I am to say something about popular music. But rather than defending myself against the accusation that I like only old stuff or debating the quality of Paul Simon’s music or the relative merits of classical vs. pop, I’d much rather expand the discussion by contemplating the subject of quality in art. Let’s consider some general principles (which I first learned from my teacher Mary Holmes, though any errors should be ascribed to me not to her).
1) Art is not nature; nature is not art. Art is anything made by human beings; nature is anything not made by human beings. Paintings, movies, popular songs, computers, furniture, kitchen spoons, and space ships are works of art. Babies, seashells, sunsets, dreams, people, and sneezes are not art, though any of them can be used in a work of art. (If you tattoo a baby, glue seashells to a mirror, photograph a sunset, write an interpretation of a dream, get dressed, or record a sneeze, you are making art.)
2) Therefore, “art” should not be used as a term of praise. That something is art just means that it is something made by human beings, is the result of human choices. The significant question is not whether something is art but whether it is any good.
3) Statements about a work of art based on quantitative dichotomies (old/new, popular/unpopular, modern/ancient, famous/unknown, etc.) are significant only in that they provide context for judging the work. They say next to nothing about the work’s value. What is significant in judging a work’s value is the discernment of the work’s qualities given its context: Is it deep or shallow, illuminating or opaque, vital or dead, authentic or sentimental, fresh or derivative, serious or frivolous, uplifting or demoralizing, etc. Is it universal or parochial, self-conscious or naïve, classical or romantic, tragical, comical, historical, or pastoral, idealistic, pathetic, or critical, hopeful or despairing, religious or skeptical, elegant or rough, civilized or primitive, harmonic or melodic, etc.
4) All such judgments involve the beholder, and it is true that no two beholders will have identical experiences of a work. At the same time, the idea that a work of art may mean anything that any beholder thinks it means, or be rightly or reasonably judged in any way a beholder chooses to judge it, is ludicrous. Of course thought is free; people can think what they like. But works of art are made to cause particular experiences, evoke certain responses, convey meaning, incarnate essences. The more successfully the work of art fulfills its intentions and the better the quality of those intentions, the better the work. And the better the work, the more the need for interpretation. But while a great work of art may bear many valid interpretations, there are always a great many more possible interpretations that would be invalid. There may be various right ways to interpret a play by Shakespeare, let us say, or a song by Paul Simon. But there may also be many ways that are totally wrong. (Someone who says King Lear
is about how much fun life can be is a fairly long way off the mark.)
5) Hence, judgments of works of art may themselves be better or worse, depending on how accurately the judge’s perceptions reflect the reality of the work being judged. This is why Mary Holmes used to say “the work of art that you judge judges you.” To judge that a shallow or sentimental work is great and profound is to reveal one’s own shallowness or sentimentality; to judge that a great visionary work is weak or foolish is to be convicted of weakness or foolishness of vision. If it were not so, then all
judgments (not only legitimate and reasonable ones) would be equally valid, merely the expressions of feelings, neither right nor wrong. And if this were so, then the assertion that all judgments are equal (neither right nor wrong), being itself merely a feeling, would have no more merit than the assertion that judgments may be true or false to the thing being judged. All grounds for disagreement, persuasion, and learning would disappear.
6) Agreeing, then, that judgments of quality in works of art may be better or worse, we can also see that every such judgment depends on three elements: the quality of the work
being judged, the quality of the judge
doing the judging, and the quality of the judge’s experience
of the work, on which his or her judgment is based. Works of art may be good or bad in a myriad ways; judges may be good or bad in as many ways; and each particular experience of a work will be in one sense unique, in a second sense very much like every other experience of that work by that judge, and in a third sense very much like anyone else’s experience of the same work. Some works exist to evoke different responses in different sorts of people; others exist to evoke the same response in everyone. Variety in these matters is almost limitless. Yet there remains an inescapable difference between the judgments of an experienced and educated taste and that of a blind or willful ignorance.
7) Since, like works of art themselves, judges may be better or worse, and particular experiences of particular works may vary, there is no final and absolute (human) judge of any work of art, nor any stage of learning at which one has attained perfection as a judge. There is rather the endless deepening of one’s capacity to make sound judgments, a deepening that depends on the increasing mastery of the grammar of aesthetic judgment, of the knack of aesthetic appreciation, which is based on the combination of many gifts, including insight, comprehension, responsiveness, clarity of mind, knowledge, memory, and so on, and of the will to put those gifts to good use.
8) Finally, as regards popular music, instead of sweeping generalizations about rock or pop or hip-hop or reggae or rap or any particular musician, let us instead agree that the best judge of any particular artist in any of these forms, and of popular music in general, would be that person who could best combine the following: knowledge of the nature of music, music history, classical and popular forms, and the technology of music production; aesthetic responsiveness to sound; imaginative participation in the language and intention of the artist; lack of narrow prejudices; clear vision of the variety and possibilities of human expression; subtlety; perceptiveness; insight; varied and rich experience; and wisdom.
That’s a tall order. But that’s what we must aspire to, not in order to enjoy a work of art but in order to judge it well. Only if we can agree on these principles can we have meaningful conversation about any particular work of art. Without them, any discussion of art would be reduced to an endless stream of unjustifiable and shallow opinions—I like this song; I don't like it—among which agreement or disagreement would be merely accidental and therefore nugatory. Only by embracing these principles do we preserve the possibility that conversation about art may result in the growth of appreciation.